Today, the day after the American Revolution. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
The American Revolution
ended in 1783. Then a different revolution followed
right on its heels. Our belief in detached
rationalism gave way to a new vision of the power
of the mind.
We'd modeled our Revolution on the Roman Republic.
We were firm, rational men in a rational world. Our
art showed Roman soldiers with uplifted swords. We
carved busts of our leaders in classic Roman form.
That mood still hung over in the early 1800s when
we went about saying things like "Millions for
defense, but not one cent for tribute." We needed
that sort of assertion to sustain the Revolution
once it was won. But that was a rhetoric that'd
been honed in the late Colonial period.
Beneath the Revolution had bubbled a peculiar
English-American network. People like Thomas Paine,
Joseph Priestley, Ben Franklin, the English
anarchist William Godwin, and the atheistic
American poet Joel Barlow all knew each other.
Those were fiercely rational men, cast in the mold
of the Roman Republic.
But another thread was rising in the fabric.
Godwin's wife, Mary Wollstonecraft, was a devout
Christian and the author of modern feminism. She
didn't fit the detached masculine mindset around
her at all. She signaled the change, and her
writings were very popular in our new country.
Young William Blake was also in the network, and he
was also changing the revolution. Blake was the
first great Romantic poet. He knew his rationalist
friends had run their course. He wrote, "I will not
reason and compare. My business is to create." For
him, revolution was the creative act as it begins
in each of us.
The English Romantics had precursors here. Our
young writers shaped an American school of
sensibility in the 1780s. 24-year-old William Brown
wrote the first American novel in 1789. It's title,
The Power of Sympathy: Or, the Power of
Nature Founded in Truth, saw Romantic
thinking coming. And he wasn't alone.
The Romantics weren't going to seek truth by
measuring nature. They meant to create it from
within. When Blake said "All Deities reside within
the human breast," he celebrated just that creative
power of the human mind.
We built our new Republic on our new creative
power. The first important American inventions
appeared right after the War. Our industrial power
rode in on the new steamboats, high-pressure steam
engines, and water-power systems. They were all the
creative fruit of the new revolution -- of the
The first Revolution had set us free. Now we could
leave the set jaw and the uplifted fist. Now we
turned straight to the power of the mind -- to the
power to create ourselves. And that's what made our
new nation great.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds